And Another One Gone…

August 27, 2008

I can’t believe I’m blogging on the same topic in less than a week, but I think it’s important.

In the ongoing theme of the death of the independent record store, Kim’s Video–formerly Kim’s Music and Video–by Columbia is closing.  I wouldn’t be sad, considering that I never much liked the store, except that it provided an ease of shopping for my lifestyle: go to school, pick up an album on the way home, no trips downtown required.

No, what makes me upset is that if Kim’s, the cockroach of independent record stores, can’t survive, nothing can.  Kim’s, a long-established chain of stores in the NYC area, has survived raids for “piracy,” after all.  And it’s been in the uptown location since April 2001, hardly an auspicious economic time itself.  Though I foresee that their downtown locations might have a longer life–NYU kids are always hipper than Columbia kids–I don’t think that any of them will exist primarily as music stores for very much longer.

And here’s why: This year, the top 5 music retailers were, in order, iTunes, Walmart, Best Buy, Amazon, and Target.

Everyone thinks that digital music is responsible for the death of the independent music store.  And to an extent, it is, since we are again shifting from an album-based musical economy to one that is single-based, thanks to iTunes and Amazon (and everyone else online).  And, Columbia University, from which Kim’s uptown rents its space, is undoubtedly a hotbed of online music purchasing and, shall we say, exchanging.*

But, within those top 5 retailers, you may notice that Walmart, Best Buy, and Target are still primarily brick-and-mortar stores.   There are still a LOT of people who do not buy music online, and they could theoretically buy from independent stores.  Those people, though, are going where it’s cheaper and more convenient: all three of those stores sell new releases at a loss, or bargain with record labels to buy in such large quantities that the label gives them a greater discount.

Basically, an independent record store can’t keep up with this, no matter where it’s located.  Most major-label distribution companies sell new releases in small quantities to independent stores at about $10-12 per CD; Best Buy, Walmart, and Target sell them to customers for about $10 each.  If independents sold them at the same price, they’d lose money on every CD they sold. And, though we’d all like to think that the cool music on indie labels that the big boxes don’t sell is the bread and butter for brick-and-mortar independent stores, it just isn’t–and those stores often have the big indie releases anyway.

And now my eulogy for Kim’s Uptown:  I never liked you.  Your staff was rude, and they never wanted to answer questions.  And they often overcharged.  I’m pretty sure that I visited the store on occasions when the security staff outnumbered the folks behind the counter, making me think that you thought customers were more likely to steal music than to buy it.

Unlike your downtown locations, Uptown rarely had new releases consistently stocked, unless it was (ugh!) Vampire Weekend. How you never managed to have anything I wanted in stock, I’ll never know.

Finally, your coy way of categorizing music–“indie” is music from the past ten years, “establishment” meant anyone coming before that–was needlessly precious.  It appealed to people who were needlessly pretentious in their music tastes, like the person I knew who claimed never to have heard Sonic Youth because they were “too mainstream.”  That dude got lot of music at Kim’s (and Other Music, a perhaps even more irksome store).

So, goodbye, Kim’s Uptown.  I won’t miss you, but I will miss many other, more homey stores like you.

*The university certainly does not condone file sharing.  In fact, they have rather grave repercussions if students get caught file sharing with Columbia accounts.

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2 Responses to “And Another One Gone…”

  1. I think there’s more to the top five than just the convenience. I think the sad fact is that the people who genuinely love music – those likely to try something new and branch out into actual “indie” tracks and albums are greatly outnumbered by the scores of people who heard a catchy tune on FM-whatever and rushed to Walmart because the DJ told them to.

    It’s the same with books…The Da Vinci Code was a mediocre at best thriller with very little new to add to the particular conspiracies it expounded – but the people who bought it in droves were people who don’t buy and read books regularly…who read it because everyone else was reading it, and not because they really had the urge to read – and so it went through the roof, while much better books by much better writers fell by the wayside.

    In our society it’s hard to figure out the magic median between commercial drek and artistic honesty that will pay the bills.

    I hope you still have a few independent stores to visit. We have one up in Norfolk called Skinnies that has lasted against the waves of time.

    -DNW

  2. badcoverversion said

    Oh, I’d agree, to an extent (though I don’t discount that people actually like what’s on the Top 40). Which is why I said that we’d like to think that the small stores get by on indie releases, but they don’t. They have to sell major-label releases, as well.

    Also, another topic for another day is the lack of mid-level artists–those who ostensibly walk the line between starving in a garret apartment and producing overtly “commercial” music–on major labels. That category’s demise goes back to changes in the recording industry starting in the 1980s…

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